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Imperial Imperilment

By Lester K. Spence,
a 2004 Kellogg scholar in health disparities and an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page C02


Winning the Fight Against Imperialism

By Cornel West

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Penguin Press. 218 pp. $24.95

In "Democracy Matters," Cornel West tackles some of the same themes addressed in his previous book, "Race Matters." But where the latter was a breezy stroll through various aspects of black politics and black social issues, "Democracy Matters" is a much denser read. Race continues to play a role in West's observations, but a much less important one. In his view, what requires our attention now is the growing imperial power of the United States and the peril that it represents.

"Democracy matters are frightening in our time precisely because the three dominant dogmas of free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism are snuffing out the democratic impulses that are so vital for the deepening and spread of democracy in the world," he writes. "In short, we are experiencing the sad American imperial devouring of American democracy."

The new book is richer and more compelling largely because it contains a historical component that was mostly neglected in its predecessor. In his chapter on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, West boils down several decades' worth of history on the movement for a Jewish state into just 30 pages. West has long been interested in Jewish culture (a chapter of "Race Matters" was devoted to the relationship between blacks and Jews, and he wrote a book with Tikkun magazine's Michael Lerner on the subject), so this is a natural extension. He does a yeoman's job of presenting the history clearly and succinctly for the layperson. And given the minefield this subject represents for scholars, he does an admirable job of critiquing both Israeli (and American Jewish) elites and their Palestinian counterparts, while arguing that the central problem remains the lack of a Palestinian state.

We see similar balance in his chapter about Christian identity, in which he briefly details the historical struggle between what he refers to as "Constantinian Christianity" (a static, conservative form of the faith) and "prophetic Christianity," described by West as a superior, socially progressive tradition. His exploration of the past is refreshing, but it fails to compensate for weaknesses that are typical of him. His division of Christianity into two basic types is problematic. Although there has always been tension within Christianity among "conservative," "liberal" and "progressive" forces, West's casual application of two labels to more than 2,000 years of history gives the impression that he came up with the concepts first, then jammed in examples from the past to fit them.

He also tends to make curious choices when citing examples to bolster his arguments. When discussing individuals who have played a central role in upholding and creating the democratic tradition, West points to intellectuals instead of grass-roots activists who have engaged in crucial ground-level struggles. So where we might expect a discussion of Eugene Debs or Fannie Lou Hamer, West gives us a brief exegesis of Herman Melville and "Moby-Dick." James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and John Dewey are other figures he credits with speaking truth to power.

While Morrison's work has truly expanded the scope of American literature, and similar arguments can be made about West's other examples, his focus on their art rather than their activism is telling. Baldwin, for example, was not only one of the premier essayists of his time, but also a street fighter in the black freedom struggle. Given the choice between an individual's words on a page and his actions, why simply focus on the words?

West's least successful chapter contains his essay on youth culture, in which he recalls his much-noted clash with Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers. First, he never makes clear exactly what "youth culture" is. Is it hip-hop? Is it extreme skateboarding? Is it street basketball? Where West is careful in previous chapters to provide a historical context, this one is largely bereft, except for a very short history of hip-hop. Some analysis would have helped readers understand the differences and similarities between the current nascent youth movement and the youth movement of the 1950s and '60s that helped to bolster the civil rights and antiwar struggles of those decades. Second, it is not clear precisely how his discussion of his move from Harvard to Princeton fits in this chapter -- or in the book itself. West says he left Harvard in response to Summers's efforts to micromanage him, but what does any of that have to do with youth culture? West's attempt to make the transition from that subject to his own story is unconvincing and appears to cast a conflict between two prestigious scholars as a high-stakes battle for the future of democracy.

Ultimately, just as there weren't many conservatives waiting in line to see "Fahrenheit 9/11," there probably won't be that many nonbelievers lining up to purchase "Democracy Matters." While West will find a receptive audience among those who agree with his sentiments about democracy and imperialism, it is not clear that his book offers any more insight than similar volumes by Molly Ivins, Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman and others of like perspective.

Jonathan Yardley is away.

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